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R.B.I. Baseball 21 review: A stale cup of coffee

The long-running series is back with a deeper push into the simulation realm. Our review.

5

After enjoying success during its introduction during the 8-bit era, the R.B.I. Baseball series went on an extended hiatus between the years 1995 and 2014. It has seen an annual release in every year since leading up to this year’s R.B.I. Baseball 21. The franchise has aspirations of straddling the line between arcade and simulation-style gameplay in an effort to appeal to multiple demographics. How successful this endeavor is will likely be determined by each individual player's expectations. Baseball fans that skew heavily towards one gameplay style or the other will find frustration, though the foundation of an enjoyable video game is hiding inside this package if you are willing to look beyond its incredibly conspicuous errors.

The fielder’s choice

The R.B.I. Baseball franchise was resurrected from its long slumber by MLB Advanced Media, the league’s internet and digital media arm. It is responsible for loading social media with clips and driving interest in the product through digital outreach. With MLB-licensed video games absent from most gaming platforms, it makes sense to get a product in front of the millions who enjoy video games as a primary hobby. 

The first R.B.I. Baseball release of the new era was small in scope and a largely arcade-centric affair. For its eighth year, the series aims its sights at becoming a more serious digital representative of its real-life counterpart. Play-by-play commentary, a dynamic time progression system, and a create-a-player feature headline the improvements over last year’s entry. Additionally, pitching controls have been reworked to accommodate a refined fatigue and pitch selection system.

On the field, the new pitching setup is the biggest year-over-year change in gameplay from R.B.I. Baseball 20. Depending on the pitcher, players can select one of several pitch types. How effective a given pitch is depends on the specific pitcher. Some hurlers are fastball specialists while others excel with breaking balls. Fatigue can set in over the course of several innings and affect the potency of a given pitch. 

This system adds an increased level of depth to the gameplay of the series, which is good news for more sim-minded players. That said, it is rather easy to slice through lineups with just about any bum off the bench. Fatigue will almost always derail a no-hitter attempt, though, as I had multiple veteran starters who would become gassed after 60 pitches.

Batting is unchanged from the last outing and is as simple as can be. There are three different swing types: contact, normal, and power. It doesn’t seem to matter which one you use in any given situation. The game also displays pitcher controls when you are at bat, so any player who may still be trying to understand what little nuance the batting system might have will be confused. I recommend playing on the hardest difficulty setting or you will find yourself blowing out the CPU in little time.

Thanks to some of the worst animation I have seen in a video game of any type in many years, everything else that happens on the field of play is nonsense. You will see fielders warp to the ball, the ball warps to fielders, throws come out of torsos, outs called when no one touches a base, and much more. Once contact is made at the plate, literally anything can happen, save for something you would expect to see in a baseball game. When fielding a ground ball with my first baseman, I ran towards the bag and met an invisible wall that prevented me from completing the out. After six or seven steps running in place, the umpire called the runner out.

I’ve seen fielders running into and through walls to catch foul balls. I’ve seen foul ball outs called when the fielder was ten yards from where the ball should have hit the grass. Baserunners will stand up off the bag after sliding while the fielder holds the ball right next to them. Neither player acts like human baseball players and the constant lack of working animations or clear visual feedback on what is happening makes immersion impossible. Even things like making contact with pitches feels weird as grounders and dingers look and feel the same when leaving the surface of the bat. 

Play-by-play is provided by MLB Network’s  Fran Charles and it’s mostly acceptable, especially when considering this is the first time the feature has appeared in the series. The total lack of in-park announcer or other audio presentation fixtures further kills any chance of a player becoming immersed in the game. The menus are loaded with random cuts of licensed music just like you’d expect from a serious AAA sports game, but all the songs have nothing to do with baseball and aren’t common stadium fare. It feels like they were included to have something to add to a checklist. 

Graphically, there is nothing to write home about. The stadiums and players look good enough to not be distracting. The crowd is made up of laughably low-res sprites that have been blurred into oblivion. This game is built with mobile phones in mind. I ran the PC version via Steam and it only offers increased resolution and texture detail over its iOS counterpart. I can’t say for sure, but this is a game that feels hamstrung by the need to reach the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t carry a AAA price tag, but it certainly doesn’t earn its $29.99 asking price, either.

The mercy rule

The marketing materials for R.B.I. Baseball 21 makes some bold claims that the end product fails to deliver on. While it does carry the full MLB and players union license, it is a lesser representation of the game of baseball than some of its more-arcadey rivals. It touts features of AAA sports games, yet trips over its own cleats when asked to make a clutch play. The lack of online play will make it a non-starter for many and the aggressively bad animations will disqualify it for anyone hoping for a semi-serious game of baseball. This mess could be cleaned up, but players will need to wait for next year’s outing to find out. 4/10 beanballs


This review is based on the PC Steam release. The game key was provided by the publisher for review consideration. R.B.I. Baseball 21 is available on all platforms now.

Contributing Tech Editor

Chris Jarrard likes playing games, crankin' tunes, and looking for fights on obscure online message boards. He understands that breakfast food is the only true food. Don't @ him.

Review for
R.B.I. Baseball 21
4
Pros
  • Full MLB license
  • All-new play-by-play commentary
  • Create-a-player added
Cons
  • Atrocious animations
  • Poor visual feedback for all ball-in-play situations
  • Dated visuals tied to mobile versions
  • Poor overall game presentation
  • No online play
From The Chatty
  • reply
    March 23, 2021 7:00 AM

    Chris Jarrard posted a new article, R.B.I. Baseball 21 review: A stale cup of coffee

    • reply
      March 23, 2021 8:31 AM

      Now review the one from 1987.

    • reply
      March 23, 2021 9:13 AM

      I bought RBI Baseball 17 only because it had a Blue Jay on the cover, and got it in the mail the SAME DAY that we found out said player had been TRADED, OOOOF!

      Anyways, RBI was fun as an arcade game, and TBH I found it quite hard! (I still don't know if I've ever recorded a win against the computer).

      But this 21 version of RBI looks worse than MLB THE SHOW 11 from 10 years ago (PS3) :( It's obviously sharper looking but worse at the same time, in every other way.

      Review:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcAzEh_gi1c

      • reply
        March 23, 2021 10:41 AM

        The RBI games are only $30, so they're actually not too bad for the money. I've played '18-'21 and they're good budget MLB licensed games. Only ones on the Switch unfortunately :P I like '21, but there's some jank, stiff animations and occasional glitches. They actually added play by play commentary for the first time in '21.

        • reply
          March 23, 2021 10:43 AM

          Incidentally I am a little scared now that MLB THE SHOW will no longer be a PS4 exclusive.

          There’s gonna be some kind of trade off being on XBOX now. I guess we’ll see!

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